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Feb 15, 2016

CSIRO Einstein presser generates waves of its own

Updated Last Friday the CSIRO, supported by the chief scientist and a panel of ANU luminaries, held a major press conference claiming a leading role in the discovery for th


Graphic of merging black holes which generated gravitational waves
Graphic of merging black holes which generated gravitational waves

Updated Last Friday the CSIRO, supported by the chief scientist and a panel of ANU luminaries, held a major press conference claiming a leading role in the discovery for the first time of gravitational waves.

However the detecting of the waves, predicted 100 years earlier by Albert Einstein in his general theory of relativity, generated other waves in the media, including here, amplifying the parallel debate about cuts to parts of the national scientific and industrial research organisation and its refocusing on commercial outcomes.

If one searches for stories about how Britain, or India, contributed to the international but US based Advanced Laser Interferometer Gravitational-wave Observatory or LIGO those stories all have one thing in common, a desire to underscore individual national contributions to the detection of the waves caused by the merging of two black holes some 1.3 billion light years away, or make that 1.3 billion years closer to, the moment the universe began (everywhere).

If that doesn’t mess with your mind, you need to be more careful about the parties you’ve been going to.

Fairfax celebrated the discovery and the Australian involvement with several stories pointing out that the Australian role, described in detail here by the CSIRO, involved a unit which had been subsequently gutted by job cuts at the national scientific and industrial research organisation.

Making the Friday presser a posthumous celebration of the work of departed talent, which was somehow overlooked in the heat of the moment.  And leading to some harsh words in Plane Talking which have now been overtaken by the response (below) by Cathy Foley, Science Director, CSIRO Manufacturing.

On Friday, along with scientists around the world, CSIRO was thrilled to celebrate the part we played in this momentous scientific achievement. I was disappointed to read today’s article stating that CSIRO will have no capacity to play a role in this type of work in the future. This is simply untrue.

Our contribution to Advanced LIGO – the observatory responsible for detecting the elusive waves – was in coating many of the optics. The coatings, which were developed and applied at our labs in Sydney, are among the most uniform and precise ever made. Despite what the article states, we still have our optical thin film and metrology capability, and all of our coatings infrastructure. In fact Caltech, which leads the optics work for Advanced LIGO, is visiting CSIRO this week to progress some further work together. This is because CSIRO is the only research group in the world that can do these coatings to this level of precision.

It is true that CSIRO reduced our polishing capability last year. This is because there are robotic systems in operation around the world that are more affordable and more advanced in polishing. As a result, CSIRO was no longer competitive in this field. We didn’t do any of the polishing work on Advanced LIGO, so to draw a direct link between the two is misleading. We have also made some reductions to the coating team, but have retained our core capability and continue to deliver on our projects.

I was delighted to attend the celebration at Parliament House on Friday with three of my CSIRO colleagues who were directly involved in the LIGO project. To claim that we’ve ‘axed’ all of these people, is both untrue and unfair to these individuals and the contribution they’ve made to advance our knowledge of the Universe.   

This is of course a distraction from the real story, which is that the general theory of relativity has remained exceptionally durable for more than 100 years, and gravitational waves could open new ways of understanding how the universe works, and how it might work for ‘us’.


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8 thoughts on “CSIRO Einstein presser generates waves of its own

  1. Crocodile Chuck

    Breathtaking arrogance and a shameless grab for credit?

    Sounds more like what an Australian government would do.

    Oh, to what depths has the CSIRO fallen. 🙁

  2. Ben Sandilands

    Now that the CSIRO has replied to the Fairfax story I think the issue is that staff cuts at the body have understandably caused more than a few waves of their own.

    My view is that an increased focus at the CSIRO needs to be fed by increased innovation and research. It won’t I think achieve greater commercial success by doing the things private enterprises are already doing, but by discovering new things which commerce can use.

  3. ghostwhowalksnz

    The official CSIRO response is bullshit 101, where you ignore the actual complaint ( gutting the researchers) and highlight some minor aspect ( coating the optics)

    if we look at the website for the international collaboration we can find the Australian ‘section’ ACIGA where ‘coating the optics’ is barely mentioned but this is.

    Undertake the research and development required to improve current-generation laser interferometric gravitational wave detectors and develop the next-generation detectors required to realise gravitational astronomy in collaboration with the international community;
    Undertake analysis of data from the international network of gravitational wave detectors and participate in multi-messenger astronomy
    Advocate for the construction of a southern-hemisphere next-generation gravitational wave detector in Australia.

    A precise comment comes from a Dr Walsh in the SMH:
    “..closure of the Australian Centre for Precision Optics at the Lindfield site and the departure of the senior team indicated the reduced interest in this field from CSIRO”

  4. comet

    The government has been pushing for the CSIRO to focus on commercial activities, to either make a profit, or to help industry make a profit.

    Unfortunately, discovering the universe doesn’t fit into this profit model.

    Added to that, the previous Prime Minister Tony Abbott was ideologically anti-science, along with a core rump of conservative politicians who still hold a place in the current government.

    Slashing funds to the CSIRO, resulting in it doing less research for discoveries in space, is of the same mindset that motivated the church to arrest Galileo Galilei in the 1500s.

  5. Sam Jackson

    Thank you Comet, the old enemies, church v science even today continue the deadly battle.

  6. comet

    It’s strange that some people don’t want to find out more about the universe.

    We know very little about space and time. Or what space is. Or what movement is.

    We know that when an object is moving from ‘A’ to ‘B’ that we see it on our left field of view and then our right field of view. But what actually is that?

    And we have no idea about time. The only sure thing is that there is no ‘now’.

  7. Dan Dair

    Now that I think about it,
    I think I now agree with you……

    Of course, that was then,
    this is now…..
    No this is……
    No this is…… etc, etc.

  8. ghostwhowalksnz

    The Precision Optics development in Sydney had almost nothing to to with ‘discovering the universe’
    They generally work for research institutions, defence and optics companies solving their optics problems


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